What is an Apostle?
When Jesus Christ began his ministry, he had many followers, called disciples. However, when it was time to organize the church officially, Jesus needed some people who had specific authority to carry out his mission. These men were called apostles.
“12 And it came to pass in those days, that he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.
13 And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles;” (Luke 6, King James version of the Bible.)
Today, the Mormons also have apostles. Today, there are fifteen apostles, with twelve serving in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and three serving in the First Presidency. The First Presidency consists of the Prophet, who is also the president of the church, and two counselors who work with the president. Jesus is the official head of the church.
In modern times, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were sent by Joseph Smith in 1829 to find the twelve apostles. It took six years to select the names to be presented. This shows just how seriously they took the assignment. It is not a light matter to choose an apostle, and in a new church, where you haven’t had decades to watch someone at work, it is especially critical to be sure before a name is submitted. Today, the decision often takes several months to be made.
Like the Savior, Apostles are chosen by the leader of the church after careful prayer to know who God wants him to choose. The position of apostle is a life-long position. The men chosen are ordinary men, not specifically trained for the job in scholastic settings, not having graduated from a seminary in the usual understanding of the word. They come from a variety of careers-education, business, law, or other fields they chose. They were chosen not for their degrees, but for their worthiness and because God wanted them. In the same way, the men Jesus chose were ordinary men, fishermen and others in ordinary careers. He did not choose rabbis as his apostles.
Jesus made the calling of his apostles official by the laying on of hands, and this is also how modern apostles receive their authority. They are chosen and then “set apart” or given the authority to act in the name of the Savior.
What is an apostle? The word means “One Sent Forth.” Specifically, they are sent forth to bear witness of the Savior. The Savior told Peter the purpose of the apostle’s role in the church: ” And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The keys are the authority to act in God’s name. The senior apostle, who is the current president of the church is the only person who can use all the keys necessary to run the church. The other apostles use only those authorized by the prophet. These are not tangible keys, just authority.
Now there is one time when this pattern changes, and we’ve seen this situation recently. When President Hinckley, the previous Mormon prophet, died, the first presidency was dissolved. There was no longer a president of the church, and his counselors were automatically released, so there weren’t counselors either. Who was running the church? At the moment of death, the quorum of the Twelve Apostles automatically becomes the ruling body of the church. They run the church as a group until the new prophet is chosen. Then authority over the church is given to the new prophet.
There is no dramatic election or campaigning for leadership in the Lord’s church. The apostles are ranked by how long they’ve been on the council. The senior apostle-the one who has been an apostle the longest-automatically becomes the new prophet. This is always verified by prayer, but it is how it always works. Since God has power over life and death, He retains ultimate control over the leadership of the church and avoids the contention or campaigning that can happen without this orderly system.
Apostles are one sign of the true church, called for in the Bible, and essential to the orderly operation of God’s kingdom on earth.